While listening to Handel’s Messiah, consider how the great composer joined forces with William Hogarth, the artist, and Thomas Coram, a retired sea captain, for the sake of children in desperate need.
Captain Coram wrote of the abandoned children left to die in the gin-soaked London of their day that they lie “exposed, sometimes alive, sometimes dead and sometimes dying.”
Determined to establish a facility to provide for these children but lacking an entrance into the court, Coram worked for 17 years before he finally secured a royal charter from George II to establish a hospital for the care and education of abandoned children in 1739.
To fund his charity Coram turned to his friends in the arts.
Handel supported the hospital by staging an annual performance of Messiah, holding fund-raising concerts in the Foundling Hospital Chapel and bequeathing a score and rights of Messiah to the hospital.
Hogarth encouraged other well-known artists to donate paintings for public display. Joshua Gainsborough, Thomas Reynolds and others joined Hogarth in contributing their works to create London’s first art gallery.
For two centuries the Foundling Hospital in London’s Bloomsbury neighborhood cared for children who otherwise would have been abandoned.
Women too poor to keep their children, servant women not allowed to keep children, unwed mothers, victims of rape and others carried their infants to the hospital. They went through the agony of the admission process.
A mother would put her hand into a bag filled with white, red and black balls. A black ball meant no admission; a red ball meant the waiting list; a white ball meant that, if healthy, her baby would be admitted–a child’s life had been saved. The child would have food, shelter, health care, education and training for a profession.
On Sundays and holidays wealthy Londoners would come to see the children, hear them sing and stroll through the galleries.
In 1926 the Foundling Hospital moved to the countryside, and the site became know as Coram’s Fields.
Today it is a seven-acre children’s park with an under-fives play area, pets’ corner, paddling pool and a lighted football field. The sign on the gate reads, “No Adults Admitted Unless Accompanied by a Child.”
Nearby the Coram Foundation provides day care and other resources for children and their mothers. The recently refurbished Foundling Museum tells the story of Coram, Handel, Hogarth and the children cared for there.
Especially moving are the oral histories and the various tokens mothers left to enable them later to identify their child. The great paintings still adorn the walls. Handel’s will, his Messiah conducting score and other relics are on display.
Visitors may sit in chairs equipped with speakers and choose from recorded selections of his works. As you would expect, this is a child-friendly museum providing children, young people and families with activity packs, audio guides, storybooks and drawing activities.
Can there be anything else? Yes, a charming cafe serves delicious food at good prices. And “Coram Boy,” a play based on two children helped by the Foundling Hospital and adapted from the prize-winning novel by Jamalia Gavin, is now playing at the Royal National Theatre in London.
The composer James MacMillan is preparing a ballet score about an 18th-century foundling. The vision of Coram, Handel and Hogarth lives on.
John E. Roberts is pastor emeritus of WoodbrookBaptistChurch in Baltimore.